Random Brain Bits Articles

Is Anyone Normal Today?

Friday, July 1st, 2011

Is Anyone Normal Today?Take a minute and answer this question: Is anyone really normal today?

I mean, even those who claim they are normal may, in fact, be the most neurotic among us, swimming with a nice pair of scuba fins down the river of Denial. Having my psychiatric file published online and in print for public viewing, I get to hear my share of dirty secrets—weird obsessions, family dysfunction, or disguised addiction—that are kept concealed from everyone but a self-professed neurotic and maybe a shrink.

“Why are there so many disorders today?” Those seven words, or a variation of them, surface a few times a week. And my take on this query is so complex that, to avoid sounding like my grad school professors making an erudite case that fails to communicate anything to average folks like me, I often shrug my shoulders and move on to a conversation about dessert. Now that I can talk about all day.

Here’s the abridged edition of my guess as to why we mark up more pages of the DSM-IV today than, say, a century ago (even though the DSM-IV had yet to be born).

Better By Mistake: An Interview with Alina Tugend

Monday, June 20th, 2011

Better By Mistake: An Interview with Alina TugendAfraid to make a mistake? Don’t be.

According to author Alina Tugend, the best way to become an expert in your field is by making mistakes, lots of them, but to cooperate with the brain on learning from them. In her new book, Better By Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong, explains the science of making mistakes and why learning from them is vital in a culture of perfectionism. Tugend has been a journalist for nearly 30 years and for the past six has written the ShortCuts column for the New York Times business section. She has written about education, environmentalism, and consumer culture for numerous publications, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, and Parents and is a Huffington Post contributor. I have the honor of conducting an exclusive interview with her for Psych Central.

1. I was very intrigued by the research and physiological components behind making mistakes? Could you briefly describe why dopamine is an important contributor to learning from mistakes?

Alina: Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in how we process errors. Dopamine neurons generate patterns based on experiment — if this happens, that will follow. The Iowa Gambling Task, developed by neuroscientists helps prove this point. A player is given four decks of cards and $2,000 of play money. Each card tells the player whether he won or lost money, and the object is to win as much money as possible.

The Stupid Complex

Thursday, May 12th, 2011

The Stupid ComplexNowhere in the DSM-IV does it mention “the stupid complex,” but I’m telling you it’s an epidemic these days. I used to suffer in silence. But ever since I’ve come out of the closet, I swear I find a fellow sufferer every day.

At my last therapy session, I was telling her how scared I was that everyone was going to find out that I was inherently stupid. She laughed out loud and said, “Do you know how many times I hear that a day?”

Oh. Good. Then it’s not just me.

I don’t know when it started. It could be a result of being a twin, and needing to form a sense of identity separate from my sister. Since she stole “tomboy” early on, I became “the brain,” except that mine didn’t work, but no one really knew that but me. And I was able to keep it a secret all through my childhood and adolescence.

Conquering Performance Anxiety: A Primer for All Phobias

Tuesday, May 10th, 2011

Conquering Performance Anxiety: A Primer for All PhobiasPublic speaking is the king of phobias. That’s according to Taylor Clark, author of the insightful book, Nerve. He writes:

According to a 2001 poll, more than 40 percent of Americans confess to a dread of appearing before spectators. (In some surveys, fear of public speaking even outranks fear of death, a fact that inspired Jerry Seinfeld’s famous observation that at a funeral, this means the average person would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.)

To get to the solution of this phobia — which can help us with all our other phobias — Clark tells the story of cellist Zoe Keating. Today her music is featured everywhere from National Public Radio to film scores to European ballets. Clark attended one of her performances and comments, “Keating seemed entirely oblivious to the hundreds of eyes watching her. She played as though she were in the midst of a dream, eyes closed, swaying languidly with her cello, utterly immersed in her performance.”

But it was a long way getting there.

Who Knew? No Networking on the Social “Networking” Site Facebook

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

No Networking on the Social Networking Site FacebookSilly me. I was thinking that the social networking site currently named Facebook could prove to be an effective networking tool. I humbly admit that I am one of those media whores who friends New York Times journalists not so much so that I can get to know them and eventually invite them over to my home for a nice meal my husband can whip up, but so that I can pitch them a story via Facebook mail and save myself and the technology company for whom I do some publicity about four grand a year, the average cost of a sophisticated media database and press release distribution service.

I’m cheap and I’m tacky. Yes I am. Proud of it!

Is that why I’ve been placed on probation?

Yes. A two-day probation. Like the kind I used to get in Catholic grade school when I couldn’t stop giggling in church or cheated on a test because I was too embarrassed to confess to my teacher that I couldn’t read.

Taming Our Brain’s Amygdala

Saturday, April 30th, 2011

Taming Our Brains AmygdalaIn The Emotional Brain, Joseph LeDoux, a professor of neuroscience at New York University, …

Suffering: The Irritant That Produces the Pearl

Friday, April 15th, 2011

Suffering: The Irritant That Produces the PearlWriting a Commencement speech is like writing your eulogy: You have to nail down in 10 minutes or less a succinct message that represents your entire life. It’s best to capture all the sweat and tears, the laughter and sorrow, life’s drama in a few tight, coherent paragraphs.

Having been asked to give one in May to my alma mater, Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana, I have been studying Commencement addresses of the pros: J.K. Rowling, Anna Quindlen, Oprah Winfrey, and Steve Jobs. And here’s what all of them had in common: suffering.

Yep. The primary theme in each of these essays is that suffering is the rubble on which success is built. I’m sure that you can bypass suffering altogether, but then you’d have a rather boring Commencement speech. I’ve read some of those too.

It’s the First Noble Truth of Buddhism: “Life is suffering.”

7 Steps to Closure When a Friend Dumps You

Sunday, January 9th, 2011

7 Steps to Closure When a Friend Dumps YouI think we’ve all been dissed by a friend at least once in our lifetime, right?

Recently I’ve had two people remove me as a friend on Facebook. Like that feels good. Was it my annoying status updates? The singing video that I uploaded (“A Few of My Favorite Things” … check it out )? I know I was off-key. Oh, the picture of the old lady that I posted and said it was me. You are that old lady? Geez… Sorry.

Frankly I don’t know what’s worse: the e-mails and the phone calls that aren’t returned, or the letter (or really painful conversation) explaining why the friendship is toxic and needs to be terminated. It all feels the same: REJECTION. Like you’re back in the sixth grade again, with bad acne, and the boys want to date your pretty and popular twin sister (that’s when my self-esteem issues started).

At any rate, there are ways you can get closure even when you don’t know why you’ve been dumped. Here are a few I try (every time I’m removed from someone’s friend list on Facebook).

The Man Who Did Not Take His Medicine and the Dog Who Saved Him

Sunday, November 28th, 2010

The Man Who Did Not Take His MedicineToday’s guest post is by Dr. Olajide Williams, a general neurologist with special interest in stroke. He is Associate Professor of Clinical Neurology at Columbia University. The following story is an excerpt from his book, “Stroke Diaries,” which is a collection of his experiences, both somber and hopeful. I find this piece on Oxford University Press’s blog, which you can get to by clicking here.

Pedro was lying on the bathroom floor next to the toilet bowl. Water was still running from rusty faucet, overflowing the sink, and pooling around his body as he lay limp on wet porcelain tiles. Lucy was standing over him and whining. The young black Labrador retriever had not left her owner’s side since the previous night. It was as if she had predicted it, as if she was responding to some perceptible change in his body, perhaps even a “stroke odor” that her heightened sense of smell allowed her to detect. Lucy had followed him everywhere; she lay awake next to him throughout the night, constantly licking the left side of his body. She rushed after him into the bathroom that morning, before Pedro’s world began to tilt-the visual metamorphosis, tilting up to 180° in second, and developing into a violent vertigo that caused him to slump to the ground, hitting his head against the toilet bowl on the way down.

It was 5:30 a.m. The sun had just begun its ascent above the coastline when Pedro woke up to brush his teeth. And now, hours later, he could not get up off the floor. He could not move his left arm or left leg, and he could not feel Lucy licking his left palm.

Can Your Creative Brain Ease Negative Moods?

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

Can Your Creative Brain Ease Negative Moods?Your moods and emotions color the way you see the world, yourself, and your future. Negative mood states, such as anxiety, sadness, and anger, are part of the normal ebb and flow of human emotions. They provide a necessary counterpoint to the joyful and happy occasions of life, and they add depth to the “rich tapestry of human experience.” Of course, that doesn’t make them any more pleasant or easy to get through at the time you’re experiencing them.

We have negative moods and emotions, however, for a reason. They are a way of alerting us that all is not right with our world and that we may need to take some sort of action. Rather than trying to escape these negative feelings — with pills, liquor, or thrills of some sort — we are better off exploring them and trying to get at the cause of our distress so that we can meet it head-on.

One excellent way to explore your negative feelings is through creative outlets. Explorations of negative feelings have been the focus of many creative works throughout the centuries. Examples include Emily Dickinson’s famous poem “There’s a Certain Slant of Light,” playwright Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece Long Day’s Journey into Night, Edvard Munch’s famous Expressionist painting “The Scream,” and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B minor (“Pathétique” ).

You don’t have to be a renowned composer, painter, or playwright to experience the benefits of expressing your emotions creatively. In my new book, Your Creative Brain, I present a number of ways you can transform negative emotion through creative work.

Jill Bolte Taylor: A Stroke of Insight and Our Brains

Friday, October 15th, 2010

Jill Bolte Taylor: A Stroke of InsightMany of you may have seen the Ted video by …

8 Ways to Manage Anxiety on an Anniversary

Sunday, October 3rd, 2010

8 Ways to Manage Anxiety on an AnniversaryMost of us circle a few days of the calendar year that we know will be difficult to get through: the anniversary of a death, traumatic event, or even happy occasion. These dates are charged with emotion.

Sometimes we feel trapped by these dates — like there’s nothing we can do to stop them. The approaching date creates a sense of panic and anxiety in many of us, and we can feel out of control. The one benefit from anniversary anxiety is that we can predict it and therefore prepare for it. Here are 8 ways to do just that.

1. Forecast your emotions.

You’ve circled the day. You know it’s coming. Now get honest with yourself about how you might feel on that day. If it’s the anniversary of a death of a loved one, get ready to celebrate that person’s life with joy and sadness. Pull out some photos. Prepare to feel that hollow part in your heart open up once more to the loss you have felt since the death. Allow yourself some space for mourning, even if it’s been 10 years since you’ve separated and everyone tells you that you should be over it.

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